The Sept. 16 explosion in Farmington devastated a community, the state and the many families impacted by the tragedy. It also brought some clarity to the situation facing emergency services departments across Maine and the United States.
The explosion, caused by a gas leak, killed fire Capt. Michael Bell and seriously injured six other firefighters and Larry Lord, the maintenance supervisor at LEAP. Lord and two firefighters, including Chief Terry Bell, remain hospitalized.
The explosion significantly affected staff coverage for the Farmington Fire Department, which has four full-time employees and a dozen volunteer members. Fire departments from across the state have rallied to fill the void. As of last week, 27 Maine departments have sent crews to Farmington to staff the city’s fire department — without being asked.
Departments from Bangor, Bar Harbor, Holden and Southwest Harbor have staffed the Farmington department. Crews from Augusta, Westbook and Auburn have manned the station for several days at a time.
“Departments have come forward voluntarily. We didn’t have to ask,” Farmington Town Manager Richard Davis said.
This camaraderie and dedication to public service is a hallmark of fire services, Davis said. But, in Farmington, like other communities across Maine, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire people to fill jobs at fire departments, police stations, ambulance services and municipal departments.
The number of firefighters in Maine has dropped by a quarter in recent decades. Twenty-five years ago, about 12,000 firefighters worked in Maine. Today, there are fewer than 8,000 working across the state, according to the Maine Fire Chiefs Association.
“Staffing levels in fire service across the country are at an all-time low,” Portland Fire Chief Tom Printup told the Portland Press Herald earlier this year. “With the training that’s required by even volunteer firefighters to maintain certification, no one has time. We try to recruit and do our best to maintain levels and staff, but people just don’t want to volunteer anymore.”
Between 1986 and 2013, the rate of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 population protected decreased by 18 percent nationally, the Working Group to Develop Solutions to Meet the
Needs for Municipal Volunteer Personnel warned in their December 2015 report.
“Decreases of this magnitude generally affect rural areas more, because rural areas tend to have more departments that are staffed by volunteers only,” the report said. “In addition, since volunteers are often only available on a part-time basis, in order to ensure adequate responses, more volunteers may be needed. This decline leaves many departments without sufficient personnel to respond to alarms.”
The group recommended tax credits and other incentives for volunteers, along with giving them the option to join the state employee health plan and offering some coverage through the state’s workers’ compensation program. Specific to firefighters and other emergency personnel, the group called for better training facilities and opportunities.
The state has taken some steps to help communities address shortages, but much more needs to be done.
In a recent interview, Gov. Janet Mills, who is from Farmington, said her office was exploring ways the state can help, both in the recruitment of fire and other emergency personnel and to enhance their training.
A new regional fire training center in Farmington, for both current firefighters and those studying to become firefighters, has been in the works for some time. Additional training programs at both the high school and college level, and financial support to make this career path affordable to young Mainers, are still needed.
Lawmakers approved a pension system for firefighters in 2017 but did not fund it. A bill to set aside $2.5 million a year for a system of “length of service awards” for eligible volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services personnel was put off by lawmakers earlier this year. They will consider it again next year.
“Let’s be clear. This is a bill about rural Maine and our state’s refusal to do much about the fact that we’re struggling to recruit and retain firefighters for our communities,” the bill’s sponsor Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in March.
“Call and volunteer emergency responders are absolutely critical in a predominantly rural state like Maine. We must work to reverse the decline in their numbers before we reach the point where someone dials 911 and no one is available to respond,” Ken Desmond, president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters, told committee members.
Firefighters responded to the call in Farmington, as they do throughout Maine. It is incumbent upon lawmakers and taxpayers to ensure that these important jobs come with compensation and benefits that reflect their importance to our communities.